HOUSTON — Last night's Democratic debate at Texas Southern University might not have yielded any momentum-shifting moments, but it did flesh out some fundamental ideological fissures that will continue to dominate the 2020 primary. And it showed what a debate looks like when the top-tier candidates are allowed to explain themselves without having to contend with too many thirsty long shots.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some notable attacks and stumbles. Here are the three biggest takeaways from the Dems' debate stage:
When Castro Attacks
When former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is calling you “mean and vindictive” in post-debate analysis, you might have gone too far.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro went hard after former Vice President Joe Biden early, suggesting Biden’s short-term memory wasn’t up to snuff.
Talking about his health care plan, Biden said that "anyone who can't afford it gets automatically enrolled in the Medicare-type option we have.” He also said, “You automatically can buy into this.”
When his turn came up, Castro seized on this, repeatedly claiming Biden said “they would have to buy in,” even after Biden clarified that poorer people would be automatically enrolled.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro asked, and repeated.
Castro got a fundraising boost for taking Beto O’Rourke to task in the first debate on immigration law, and looked to be creating another moment. But this time he earned gasps from the audience and an admonishment from South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said the attack “reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington.”
Castro insisted after the debate that he wasn’t questioning Biden’s mental faculties.
“The disagreement the Vice President and I had today was not about personality, it was about healthcare policy,” he told VICE News,.
Andrew Yang summed up the awkward tension of the moment pretty well.
“Certainly it was uncomfortable to be standing there while it was happening,” he told VICE News after the debate. “There's probably some meme of my facial expression being like, that just happened?”
Biden Being Biden
The former vice president had a strong first half of the three-hour debate. But he offered some jumbled answers in the debate’s homestretch that won’t help dispel concerns about his age or his gift for the gaffe.
The wheels began to come off during a c jumbled answer where Biden meandered from Afghanistan to Iraq that left even foreign policy experts scratching their heads.
"With regard to Iraq, the fact of the matter is that, you know, I should have never voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what he did," Biden said. "I said something that was not meant the way I said it. I said, from that point on. What I was arguing against in the beginning, once he started to put the troops in, was that in fact we were doing it the wrong way, there was no plan.”
Later, he gave a confounding—and exceedingly retro—answer while talking about education, after being asked about his views on racial reconciliation.
A brief sample of Biden’s word salad:
“The teachers are—I'm married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have—make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It's not that they don't want to help. They don't — they don't know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night—make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”
Biden has a decades-long history of gaffes and garbled answers. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a newly minted Kamala Harris endorser, told VICE News that Biden didn’t have “his best debate” but that wasn’t anything new for Biden.
“It’s how it’s always been,” he said. “It’s not an age thing, this is how he talks, this is how he communicates to people. At times if it goes too far, people can’t really figure out what he’s trying to say.”
Besides Castro’s thirsty attack, the candidates were much more civil than in past debates. Serious policy differences were seriously explored, with Biden going toe-to-toe with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over their contrasting healthcare visions, with explanations and critiques that were more detailed and less zinger-oriented than we’ve seen.
That may have been a function of the debate format itself: ABC expanded the debate from two to three hours and allowed the candidates longer answers. And it undoubtedly was driven by the limit on candidates participating.
The candidates heaped praise on former congressman Beto O’Rourke for his impassioned response to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso. He created one more leftist moment that could prove unpopular in the general election: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, AK-47,” he declared when asked about his plan for a mandatory buyback of automatic weapons. But he and the rest of the field mostly focused their ire on the president.
The result had Democrats breathing a sigh of relief after two earlier rounds of debates where the candidates lurched hard left and took hard swipes at one another throughout.
“This debate was the best for the Democratic Party so far,” said Democratic strategist Brad Woodhouse, who says he’s neutral in the race. “It was the most substantive. People got more time to give answers in this longer format, and it had the I thought it had the least personal attacks against each candidate.”
Cover: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren at the Democratic debate in Houston Sept. 12, 2019. Photo: Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)